Traditionally and to this day, the dental calendar continues to be dotted with a plethora of short courses for dental practitioners in every aspect of dentistry and on every subject imaginable. At the other end of the spectrum, universities continue to offer long term intensive Masters and now Doctrate programmes, the typical route to specialist registration. In between however, there is an army of practitioners who want more than a day or two can offer, yet for a variety of reasons, cannot participate easily in the traditional vehicles for structured learning.
Many leading educational institutions are now recognising this "opportunity" and offering options for practitioners to still learn in a structured way, but on a more flexible basis. King's College London Dental Institute for one, has already seen dozens of Australian dentists complete its Masters in Clinical Dentistry (Prosthodontics) programme that is largely completed over the internet.
Dentists were still, however, required to travel to London once a year to participate in the residential component of the programme which for many was an adventure, but for some, was still an inconvenience in a time-poor world. King's answer to this was to host the residential programmes internationally and for 8 days in January, the College took over the ADA NSW's Centre for Professional Development in Sydney. In a first for Australia, 21 local dentists participated in the residential component of the MClinDent, educated by King's London faculty as well as local graduates of past programmes.
Australasian Dental Practice's Senior Contributing Editor, Dr Chris Ho, a graduate of the King's MClinDent (Prosthodontics) in 2008, coordinated the Australian side of the programme and below is a Q&A he posed to the College to help explain why this type of blended learning is becoming so popular.
ADP: Can you tell me about Kings College London Dental Institute? What programs do you offer to dentists?
KCL: King's College and St Thomas' Hospital is the largest university dental hospital in Europe. The Dental Institute teaches over 800 undergraduate students on its Bachelor of Dental Surgery degree programmes (almost 20% of all dental students in the UK), 315 postgraduate taught students including 256 on flexible learning programmes and 70 postgraduate research students. King's College London (UG) tops the Complete University Guide 2012 subject league table for dentistry, which ranks UK universities by assessing their performance in nine quality factors, with an overall score of 100. King's also tops the Guardian University Guide 2012 league table for UG dentistry, ranking all UK universities according to teaching excellence scoring 100/100.
ADP: Where are your students from?
KCL: The Unit of Distance Learning runs a range of flexible distance learning courses, including MSc Aesthetic Dentistry, Advanced General Dental Practice, Maxillofacial Prosthetic Rehabilitation and MClinDent Fixed Removable Prosthodontics. The range of courses offered by the Unit reflects the diversity of students they receive. Over half of their students are based in the UK, with other distributed across Australia, South Asia and Europe. The Unit has recently increased the number of students from North and Eastern Africa which reflects the reach and accessibility of the courses. They have also recently sought to extend participation by organising MSc courses for overseas students. This has been a very successful exercise; the recent residential element of the Aesthetic Dentistry MSc was held in Sydney after the New Year and was so successful they are considering a repeat of this in 2013. They are looking to repeat that success with a planned trip to India with the Maxillofacial Prosthetic Rehabilitation course in March.
ADP: Can you tell me a little bit more about Blended Learning and why you are here in Sydney?
KCL: The courses are delivered using a 'blended learning' approach. This allows students to maintain their existing levels of family, practice and business commitments, whilst concurrently completing a programme of postgraduate study. The academic component of the course is provided online in a modular format by the means of a 'Virtual Learning Environment, (VLE)'. The VLE allows students to access text and video-graphic material (specifically designed for flexible learning), attend on-line tutorials, communicate with peers and tutors and also to upload completed course work. Alongside the online materials and the interactive platform, there is a compulsory 'face to face' element that will bring the group together for practical lab-based skill sessions and seminar-based theory sessions. It is one of these residential elements that we have recently organised in Sydney at the Australian Dental Association's training centre. Using their state-of-the-art facilities, the group were able to learn new practical skills and update their understanding of the latest techniques in aesthetic dentistry under the tuition of some of the best practitioners in the field. Sydney was chosen as a base for the 2012 residential course due to the recognition of the level of interest that the course receives from Australian students, for example in 2010, 11% of the aesthetic dentistry intake were based in Australia. When this level of interest is combined with access to an excellent venue such as the ADA, it was an obvious opportunity to explore.
ADP: So how do students actually learn when you are in the UK and students are here in Australia?
KCL: This is a common question and one that is always asked when explaining how the distance learning programmes operate in practice. The blended learning concept is based on three learning strands - the VLE-based course materials; interactive tutorials; and the residential face to face. The courses are organised into modules of study that cover wide areas of subject matter within the course, broken down into individual units that focus on particular areas within that. When students are accepted onto the course, they are given access to the VLE and they will receive access to the course units material, which is written by an expert in the field. These online resources consist of written material, photos and videos and give the student a solid base on which they can then use the extensive online references that are included to further research the topic and enhance the nature of their understanding. Assignments designed to test the students' understanding of key concepts and their application to real life scenarios together with the finished work is submitted via the VLE. This means the geographical location is irrelevant and only an internet connection is required. Similarly, the interactive tutorials operate via video conferencing software, as the tutor broadcasts directly to the students and uses powerpoint presentations and photographs to give the student the relevant information. The students are then given the opportunity to ask any questions they may have directly to the tutor. Care is taken to allow for the differences in time between countries; as there is such a large Australian contingent, often the tutorials are scheduled early in the UK, thus allowing Australian dentists the opportunity to join the meeting after work.
ADP: Why do you think that the program has been so popular. Do you think dentists are wanting to further their education in a structured manner rather than taking numerous one day courses?
KCL: The flexible nature of the MSc suits the busy workload of dentists and allows them to maintain full time work and family commitments while studying. This is the great strength of the course when compared to conventional postgraduate study. Dipping in and out of one day training courses can deliver limited benefits and the constant structured learning that the MSc and MClinDent courses offer students equips them with the confidence and expertise in a way that single one off sessions would find difficult to do. The quality of the teaching is a central to any course and by studying through the distance learning courses at King's, students have access to some of the best teaching and research output in a structured and sustained manner. The course allows students to build on their experience over time, learning new clinical techniques and approaches at the residential courses and updating their understanding of key concepts and research through the many interactive online tutorials. This, combined with informal access to tutors and administrators throughout the year, allows for a more effective and meaningful learning experience, which not only increases the confidence of participants but ensures that they stay engaged with the latest information via the creation of networks of likeminded dentists around the world. Much of the interest from potential students comes from dentists who have interacted with recent graduates from the unit; the network of graduates from the unit has been as effective as any advertising in espousing the benefits and advantages of the course.
ADP: What type of dentist attends these programs? Are they relatively new graduates or are they older graduates that have a lot of experience?
KCL: As the unit has a varied portfolio of courses, the range of students varies in terms of age and experience, but generally there is a good mix of experience within any one cohort of students. This mix is encouraged and vital for the learning experience because learning should not be a 'one way' experience; rather, the tutors hope and encourage independent discussion and analysis of issues and learning points. This is particularly apparent at the residential course as tutors ask students to submit difficult or challenging clinical cases for discussion by the group for input. The Advanced General Dental Practice course is designed specifically for dentists who are newly qualified or who have been in practise for a relatively short period of time and wish to enhance their skills in a postgraduate environment to learn advanced techniques and enhance their career prospects. The Fixed Removable Prosthodontics and Aesthetic courses attract more experienced dentists who wish to enhance their skills to provide new or improved services to their patients in their practices. The Maxillofacial Prosthetic Rehabilitation course attracts students from a range of dental and non-dental backgrounds and experience and offers the only flexible opportunity for students to get postgraduate training in this specialist field of medicine.
However, for qualified dentists the level of experience is only one factor that would be considered when applying to King's for postgraduate distance learning; their enthusiasm and willingness to learn alongside an openness to new ideas and techniques are central to what they look for in potential students and it is a key aspect of what makes these courses so successful.